Use Strengths to Leverage Weaknesses

Use Strengths to Leverage Weaknesses

Dr. Mel Levine provided advice to parents of children with learning challenges.

Jerry Stewart is dad to 4-year-old Thomas, who is autistic. He was one of 150 parents who turned out Wednesday night for pointers on how to help their children who have differences in learning abilities.

Stewart of Lowes Island said he is drawn to any opportunity where he can pick up advice and integrate it into what he already is doing with his son, who will be turning 5 next month. He commended the workshop's nationally known speaker, Dr. Mel Levine, for his advice about using a child's affinity or strong interests to strengthen his weaknesses.

"My son is always receptive to music," Stewart said.

He and his wife, Lee, use different songs to transition Thomas into meal time or into their motor vehicle.

LEVINE, co-founder of the nonprofit institute for the understanding of differences in learning, presented a two-hour workshop to parents and a seven-hour seminar to teachers on Thursday. The teachers' program went into more detail about the strategies to help the students succeed. The institute, All Kinds of Minds, provides programs for parents, educators and doctors to help children with learning differences.

Levine is author of about a dozen books and has developed a tool kit, audio cassettes and other materials on the subject. He also is a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School at Chapel Hill and director of the university's Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning.

He told parents it was important for them, their children and the teachers to know the functions of the brain so they could identify a child's weaknesses and strengths. By understanding the functions, they could pinpoint areas where learning has broken down and create specific plans to help the students succeed, he said.

Levine described a girl, Felicity, who could not remember what she read. She said it was as if every time she read a sentence, the previous sentence would be erased. Immediately, he knew she had a problem with her "active working memory."

The solution was to have Felicity circle key words in what she read, record them on a cassette, listen to them, and then explain what she read. Repeating the exercise increased her ability to understand what she had read.

LEVINE SAID children with learning problems have a tougher time than adults. The latter generally get to work in a field that compliments their strengths. "Kids need to be good in everything," he said. "Some kids really suffer for the way they are wired."

When the doctor appeared on the "Oprah" show a couple of years ago, a parent told him she had a 9-year-old son who had indecipherable writing and poor spelling. He would come home every day and beat up his 4-year-old sister and later cry himself to sleep. On the other hand, he also could fix anything in the house and do amazing things with Legos.

Levine said the boy's situation was a good example as to why schools should set aside class time to strengthen students' assets "to make sure they flourish."

No matter what the student is interested in, whether it is animals, cars or sports, "I think it's so vital to recognize those affinities," he said.

He recalled the affinity of a boy named A.J., who was named after a NASCAR driver and who wanted to be one. His parents, saying they knew their son did not have what it took to make that dream come true, asked Levine what they should do.

"You should never ever doubt a passion," he said.

Years later, A.J.'s parents called the doctor and told him that their son was happier than he had ever been. Levine said the boy did not become a race-car driver, but he sold five Nissans in the past five weeks.

Affinities have a way of branching out, he said. "Help them to become experts about their interests."

LEVINE DEFINED eight workings of the brain and how they affect behavior. For example, the attention part of the brain regulates a person's ability to focus and fight off fatigue. It also processes information and allows a student to look at a chapter in a text book and decide what's important. Students who have difficulty with this are overwhelmed when they look at the pages and they have trouble taking notes when the teacher is speaking.

The teacher can provide exercises to improve a student's attention.

He said the "temporal sequential ordering" workings of a brain allows a student to do well on a test that might ask for the events leading up to World War II or judge how long it will take to read a book and write a report that is due in three weeks.

One solution for the student who has trouble with sequential ordering is for the teacher to offer open-book tests. "We should put more emphasis on understanding instead of memorization," he said.

If a student is having trouble with pattern recognition, which is one part of the brain dealing with memory, then a teacher or a parent should give him different letter combinations to help learn the patterns.

Levine said studies show that interventions to help one student with a learning difference help everyone in the class.

For adults who did not have the benefit of teachers working with them to develop affinities and strengthen weaknesses, career counseling and neurological testing is encouraged, he said. Don't dwell on weaknesses, but instead "tease out the strengths."

JOHN AND Michele Donovan of Lansdowne said the workshop was very helpful.

Michele Donovan said she was pleased with Levine's counsel to focus on the affinities. "I think it's hard. We, as parents … get concerned about one thing and we obsess about it"

The Donovans decided to attend the workshop, because they have four "very different" children. "We're trying to help them be prepared to be the best they can be," the mother said.

She said they have one child in a gifted program, another who is very hard-working, while the other two have not yet started school.

She was grateful that the school system provided the workshop at no charge. Her husband said the content was important. "I want to learn more," he said.